52 pages 1 hour read

Tsitsi Dangarembga

Nervous Conditions

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1988

A modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, SuperSummary offers high-quality Study Guides with detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, and more.

Summary and Study Guide


Nervous Conditions (1988) is a semi-autobiographical literary fiction novel written by Tsitsi Dangarembga, an international author, playwright, filmmaker, and director. The novel is the first in a three-part trilogy and is followed by The Book of Not (2006) and This Mournable Body (2017). Tambudzai, a young girl living with her family on a homestead in Rhodesia, narrates the novel and serves as the primary protagonist. Four other female protagonists—a deuteragonist, Nyasha, and three supporting protagonists, Ma’Shingayi, Maiguru, and Lucia—are also central to the storyline. Through these characters, the novel explores themes that include the impacts of British colonizers in Rhodesia, the pressures stemming from patriarchal gender roles, and the additional complications of coming of age while undergoing cultural transitions.

This guide refers to the 2004 Ayebia Clarke Publishing edition.

Content Warning: The source material contains references to death by suicide, depictions of sexism, domestic violence, child abuse, and eating disorders.

Plot Summary

Tambudzai lives on a homestead in colonial Rhodesia with her parents, Ma’Shingayi and Jeremiah, and her siblings, Nhamo, Netsai, and Rambanai. Her family is largely supported by her uncle, Babamukuru or Mr. Sigauke, and his wife Maiguru, who have two children, Chido and Nyasha. She is enrolled in school along with Nhamo when she comes of age, but when Babamukuru and his family leave to pursue higher education in England for five years, Jeremiah claims there is not enough money to send Tambu to school. Tambu, who views education as a means of freedom, grows a field of maize to sell for tuition. Nhamo steals the mealies she produces and gives them away for free to children in the area. Tambu catches him giving away her crops at Sunday school, and she attacks him. The teacher stops their fight, listens to Tambu’s account, and offers to take her to sell her mealies in the city. While in the city, Tambu and the teacher are approached by an elderly white woman, Doris, who at first criticizes them. When she hears that Tambu is raising money for school fees, she donates 10 pounds to the cause, more than covering Tambu’s school fees. Jeremiah, who is lazy and selfish, attempts to take the money for himself, but Tambu asks the local school to hold the money and deduct her fees as applicable. At a celebration in honor of Babamukuru’s return from England, Babamukuru announces that Nhamo will move into his house and attend the mission school where Babamukuru works as headmaster and academic director. Nhamo, who is already arrogant, worsens his behavior and taunts Tambu. When he returns for vacations, he avoids working on the homestead and acts superior to the rest of his family. He fails to return home for a vacation, and that night Babamukuru and Maiguru drive to the homestead to inform his parents that Nhamo has died from an acute condition. Against Ma’Shingayi’s wishes, Tambu is enrolled in the mission school in Nhamo’s stead.

Tambu is excited by the opportunity, but the atmosphere in Babamukuru’s house is not what she expected. Nyasha, whose exposure to and education in England has strongly influenced her, often fights with Babamukuru and behaves disrespectfully. Babamukuru has an authoritarian parenting style, and he is harsh and abusive toward Nyasha. Maiguru, whom Tambu initially believes to be relatively free from the typical burdens of womanhood, does her best to appease Babamukuru while her family and her husband’s family take advantage of her. Tambu, Nyasha, and Chido attend a Christmas party, and when they return home, Nyasha remains outside with their friend, Andy. Babamukuru, who has waited up for them, is irate when Nyasha comes in and goes to the room she shares with Tambu. Babamukuru yells at Nyasha and refers to her as a “whore” before hitting her three times, after which she hits him back. Babamukuru threatens to kill her and kicks her out. She and Tambu sit outside, but Nyasha returns inside and goes to bed rather than leaving.

Tambu and the Sigauke family return to the homestead for the holiday break. Ma’Shingayi, who is pregnant, is confined to her room with complaints of lethargy. Her sister, Lucia, has come to help Ma’Shingayi, while Takesure, a distant cousin of Babamukuru’s, is hired to help on the homestead so that he can earn money and pay the fees for his two wives, whom he has left behind in another town. Lucia and Takesure begin sleeping together, and Lucia becomes pregnant. Instead of moving in with Takesure and his first two wives, Lucia sleeps with Jeremiah in the hopes of remaining on the homestead near her sister. Babamukuru is angry to find Lucia and Takesure on the homestead. Maiguru spends her time working to preserve and prepare the food, and much of the half ox that Babamukuru insisted on bringing rots, so she must cook the rotten meat for the low-level family members and the fresh meat for those at the top of the hierarchy. Babamukuru calls a meeting to discuss Takesure and Lucia. The women are left behind in the kitchen, where they discuss the unfairness of the situation. Maiguru, although pressed to join, refuses to partake, claiming it’s not her business. Ma’Shingayi accuses the others of not listening to her because she is uneducated and poor. She scolds Lucia for sleeping with Jeremiah, and she yells at Tambu for changing and assimilating to affluence. Lucia interrupts the meeting to explain she is still there to take care of Ma’Shingayi because Jeremiah is a bad husband. Babamukuru argues that a Christian wedding will help the entire family because Jeremiah and Ma’Shingayi are currently living in sin.

Ma’Shingayi gives birth to Dambudzo in the hospital, and Lucia comes to stay at Babamukuru’s to help Ma’Shingayi. Lucia asks Babamukuru to help her find a job, and he secures her a position in a hostel kitchen. The wedding plans move forward, with Nyasha taking a lead role in organizing the event. Tambu goes along with the plans, but she does not support the wedding. When the day of the wedding arrives, Tambu refuses to attend, inciting Babamukuru’s anger. Babamukuru punishes Tambu by sending the housekeeper on vacation and forcing Tambu to take over her duties. Lucia finds out and tells Babamukuru the punishment is too extreme. Maiguru later agrees, but Babamukuru declares it is his right to punish Tambu. Maiguru is upset, and Babamukuru challenges her to leave, and she does; however, Babamukuru retrieves her a few days later from Chido’s residence. Afterward, Maiguru has more autonomy and refuses to stay at the homestead during the next holiday season.

Tambu is offered a scholarship to attend a convent school, the Young Ladies College of the Sacred Heart. During the next visit to the homestead, Babamukuru decides to let Tambu attend the school. Ma’Shingayi refuses to approve the transfer, and she experiences symptoms of depression. Lucia helps by seeming to put Dambudzo in danger, forcing Ma’Shingayi to fetch him from the river and to bathe him and herself. Lucia stays on the homestead for a few days to take care of Ma’Shingayi, who improves with the assistance of her sister. Tambu returns to Babamukuru’s the day before she is to leave for Sacred Heart. Nyasha is distant and rude because she is upset that Tambu is leaving. Tambu is taken to Sacred Heart. She and the other African students live in cramped rooms with six beds, while the white students have more space with four to a room. Tambu studies hard and does not miss Nyasha. Nyasha writes mostly cheerful letters but sends one concerning note about missing Tambu and feeling ostracized. She also references her diet, which is concerning as she has a history of eating disorder symptoms. When Tambu comes home for her second visit from Sacred Heart, Nyasha is extremely thin and vomits after she hurries through her meals. At night, Nyasha wakes Tambu to climb into her bed but does not, saying she only wanted to know if Tambu would say yes to the request. Nyasha rants about her expected assimilation but then experiences a mental health crisis, which ends with her falling asleep in her mother’s arms. She is taken to a psychiatrist who dismisses the event as attention-seeking behavior, but she is taken to a second professional who admits her to a clinic. Tambu returns to school, and eventually her perspective changes to become more skeptical and she develops stronger critical thinking skills.